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Originally published September 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 14, 2010 at 11:52 AM

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America's Dilemma: Understanding Immigration

Guest-worker programs: Unhappy history haunts new plan

No immigration issue divides Congress more than the fate of current and future illegal immigrants. A House bill passed in December would...

No immigration issue divides Congress more than the fate of current and future illegal immigrants.

A House bill passed in December would make illegal presence a felony, increase penalties for first-time illegal entry to the U.S., make a drunken-driving conviction a deportable offense, and require mandatory detention for all non-Mexican migrants arrested entering the country. The Senate would allow various pathways to permanent residency or citizenship for many illegal immigrants in the country today and create guest-worker programs that primarily would benefit farmworkers.

Proponents of a guest-worker program have a hard sell. Similar programs have been plagued by abuses and have done little to stem the influx of illegal immigration.

A Senate guest-worker provision co-authored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would provide up to 400,000 visas in the first year and allow participants, after six years, to seek permanent residency.

Strongly backed by the business community, the provision would supplement existing temporary-worker programs, such as the H-2A program that brings about 45,000 agriculture workers into the country every year, and H-1B visas issued to up to 65,000 high-tech and other skilled workers.

The plan would build on a near-century-old tradition of turning to foreign unskilled laborers, mainly from Mexico, in response to labor shortages, often during times of war.

"Its historic role has been as a national emergency program," Cornell University economist Vernon Briggs wrote in a 2004 paper. "They are extraordinary policies to be used as a last resort — and then only as temporary measures."

In 1917, during World War I, an agreement was reached with Mexico to let in unskilled workers. During the program's five-year life span, 77,000 Mexicans were admitted but fewer than half returned to Mexico. "The program spawned illegal immigration," Briggs said.

A much larger exchange, the Bracero program, began in 1942, during World War II, and continued in varying forms through 1964. Some 4.6 million Mexicans came to the United States, with a peak of 439,000 in 1959.

Guest workers were to receive free housing, medical treatment, transportation and prevailing wages.

Instead, AFL-CIO associate general counsel Ana Avendano said, workers were underpaid or cheated out of wages, exposed to unsafe conditions, faced racial discrimination and were saddled with debt from recruiters and employers. Workers were unable to exercise their rights because the employer could have them deported. Under such conditions, she said, "Workers would rather be undocumented because they have full mobility."

Others argue that guest-worker programs create an underclass of foreign workers and stigmatize jobs associated with foreign labor.

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Major legislation enacted in 1986 included language providing eventual permanent resident status to those who could prove they had worked in agriculture the previous year. Nearly 1 million applications were accepted. Critics argued that many used fraudulent documents, rewarding those who entered the country illegally.

In 1995, the U.S. Commission on Immigration, headed by the late Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Texas, reported to Congress its unanimous conclusion that an agriculture guest-worker program "is not in the national interest and ... would be a grievous mistake."

Kennedy agreed that the existing system hasn't worked because it allows "so much exploitation and abuse of temporary workers and undermines the jobs, wages and working conditions of U.S. workers."

But he said the current Senate bill would "avoid those problems by streamlining the application process for employers and strengthening key protections for the workers."

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